Emma Pildes has long known about The Janes—the underground coalition of women who, between 1969 and 1973, performed an estimated 11,000 illegal abortions for women in Chicago. Theirs is a cautionary tale that resulted in a rare radical triumph, though it had every reason not to. Pildes, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, always planned to tell their story, but was saving it for when it would strike the right chord. That moment finally arrived in 2016, when the United States elected Donald Trump. “After Trump got into office, Daniel Arcana, one of the other producers of the film, and my brother said, ‘It’s time,’ and we started developing it,” Pildes told me in an interview.
Now, as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, that earlier time somehow seems quaint. But Pildes and Academy Award-nominated director, Tia Lessin, were anticipating this reality and got to work on the production of HBO’s newest documentary, The Janes—a film that asks: What are you willing to do if—or, when—the right to reproductive access is eliminated?
The Janes opens with a harrowing account of a back-alley abortion from a woman called Dorie Barron, who describes receiving a phone number from an acquaintance who knew of her unwanted pregnancy, only to discover that she’d been connected to the Chicago mafia. Speaking in code, Barron coordinated the $500 procedure anyway. “I didn’t care how it was done,” she recalls to the camera. “I was that desperate.” After being given the address to a motel in an unfamiliar area of the city, she waited in a designated room until three men and two women—one also in need of an abortion—entered. Few words were exchanged—she was told only to “lie back” and “get in the bathroom” before she and the other woman were left at the hotel, bleeding profusely. “Two young women, out in the middle of nowhere in a motel, bleeding” Barron remembers. “If I’d have stayed in that room, I’d be dead.”
Dozens of critics have already deemed it “timely,” and while that’s true, it’s far more than that: It’s at once a sinister preview of an impending future without Roe v. Wade as well as a stark reminder that the exhaustive, decades-old fight for reproductive justice in the United State has somehow managed only to become even more bleak. And regardless of how much attention Pildes and Lessin were paying to the increasing precarity of abortion access (a lot), they’ll admit they couldn’t have imagined just how relevant The Janes would be at the time of its release.
“Not in our wildest nightmares, really,” says Lessin. “It was clear to anyone paying attention that it was just a matter of time, and we were certainly racing against the clock and the court to finish this film so it could be of value to this national conversation that we’re having about the basic rights of women. Did we imagine that it would be within weeks of Roe being overturned? Absolutely not.”
The Janes formed largely by word of mouth after founder Heather Booth, an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, was told by a friend that her sister was struggling to cope with an unwanted pregnancy. Booth, already a well-connected political activist on campus, contacted the Medical Committee for Human Rights, where she learned of Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights activist who operated a medical center in the city. Howard secretly provided the young woman with a safe abortion at his clinic for $500, but it wouldn’t be the last of Booth’s referrals. Word traveled quickly and as more young women consulted Booth, she recruited her friends from the women’s movement to help. Thus, The Janes was born.
Over the course of three years, in the midst of converging human rights movements, the (overwhelmingly-white and cishet) network would expand its operation to include a fully-staffed phone line, safe houses, volunteer drivers, baby-sitters, and finally, a myriad of doctors—one of whom only purported to have a medical license—to perform the procedure before The Janes eventually learned to do it themselves. As the majority of upper-class white women sought out-of-state abortion care, thousands—mostly poor and working-class women of color—relied heavily on the coalition, often paying whatever they were able, before it was eventually brought down by a sting-operation spearheaded by the Chicago police. Seven of the Janes were arrested and charged with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion with a maximum sentence of 110 years in prison. It was only when Roe v. Wade was enacted, resulting in dropped charges, that the women could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Today, it’s painful to hear the members recall their range of emotions upon learning Roe v. Wade was made the law of the land, with many revealing how they naively thought the battle had been won. But the film’s searing personal testimony—especially that of obstetrician-gynecologist, Dr. Allan Weiland who, during his time as a medical student in the late sixties witnessed the unthinkable effects of the lengths women went to avoid pregnancy—is worse.
“I called the morgue every week because someone had died,” Weiland remembers of his time in a 40-bed ward in Chicago reserved for victims of illegal abortions—many of which were done with carbolic acid. Pildes points to this admission as one of the most surprising discoveries in making The Janes. “To have these like finite medical facts and numbers is so deeply upsetting,” she explains. “Then if you go further and think about the fact that we created this—the need for this ward. We’re murdering women in this country. And it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Though the film is a moving testament to mutual aid, grassroots organizing, and the host of sacrifices ordinary people made—not just for the movement for reproductive justice, but in the push for civil rights—there’s unfortunately only a singular Black member, Marie Leaner, that’s able to speak to this intersection. The women’s movement at large—and that of reproductive rights—has long been criticized for its exclusion of Black femmes, a fact Pildes and Lessin are well aware of when I mention it.
“Second-wave feminism does have a history of racism and classism and that was part of the context out of which this movement grew,” says Lessin. “There’s no denying that. But I think these women were doing something very different. The Janes—whether they could articulate it or not—understood that equitable access to abortion—affordable and safe abortion care—was a priority.”
There’s enough evidence to support these assertions. Frankly, though, I would’ve liked to hear more from Leaner about what it was like to organize on behalf of a number of women of color amidst a predominantly white group, not to mention an actual narrative from a non-white woman who risked everything to seek an abortion during this time. Even still, The Janes takes needful steps in presenting an unflinching portrait of what a country without Roe looks like. In short: Catastrophic for all bodies capable of pregnancy, but especially for poor and working-class people of color.
“We don’t have to change hearts and minds with this film,” Pildes said. “We just have to remind people that this is what happens—that real people die and now we have to make our opinions known because the stakes are just too high.”